When a rocket blasts off next month carrying a probe bound for a near-Earth asteroid, it will also carry humanity a step closer to deep space exploration and future Mars missions.

The Sept. 8 launch of OSIRIS-REx – an historic mission guided with help from University of Central Florida scientists – will provide valuable clues about the composition of asteroids. It’s vital information, for two reasons. Some asteroids have the potential to impact Earth and cause global devastation, so we may need to deflect one someday. And future astronauts on long journeys through space may need to gather and use resources found on asteroids.

“It will help us better understand what we can expect to find on asteroids when we want to go to particular spectral types and find usable things that enable deep space exploration,” said NASA avionics engineer and UCF doctoral student George W. Hatcher.

For Hatcher, that’s of particular importance. He is one of 100 Mars One finalists chosen from more than 200,000 applicants worldwide. Mars One is a not-for-profit foundation based in the Netherlands that plans to colonize Mars with a series of missions starting in 2024.

As finalists, Hatcher and Taranjeet Singh Bhatia, who was recently awarded his doctoral degree from UCF, each have a roughly one-in-four chance of being one of the 24 astronauts aboard six, four-person missions headed to Mars.

Any trip to space would be life-changing, but this one more than any before. Mars One is planned as a one-way mission, with colonists remaining on Mars for good, with no plan or ability to return to their loved ones and former homes on Earth.

The Osiris Rex project has already been life-changing for 23-year-old UCF student Rozina Sheikh, too. She’s been working as a research assistant for UCF physics professor Humberto Campins, head of the university’s Planetary Sciences Group. Campins is part of a team of advisory scientists on the OSIRIS-Rex mission, which will capture a sample from the surface of the asteroid Bennu and return it to Earth.

Campins and UCF associate professor Yan Fernandez will spend a year gathering and analyzing data collected by the space probe and will then make recommendations about the specific target the spacecraft should scoop to get the best sample.

For Sheikh, the mission is fascinating. She’d been a biomedicine major, with an eye toward medical school. But the call of space was strong; she has switched her major to physics and astronomy.

“I loved working with NASA, I loved the science. I knew this was for me,” Sheikh said. “I think space exploration is particularly important. It’s not only our future but our past that we are looking at. We can find information up in the cosmos that can help us down here on Earth.”

The colonization of Mars is important for the survival of the human race as Earth’s natural resources are depleted, she said. As a future scientist and educator, Sheikh she’d love to join a Mars mission – even if it’s a one-way trip.

“If we don’t push ourselves,” she said, “we’re never going to grow as a civilization.”

Sarah Schreck, a 20-year-old junior who’s also been working as an assistant to Campins, didn’t change her plans for a double major in advertising/public relations and theater, with minors in art and creative writing. But her work with Campins on OSIRIS-REx did cement her support for deep space exploration and the colonization of Mars.

“It would be an incredible opportunity to see what a trans-global community would be like,” Schreck said. “It would be valuable for us on Earth to watch that community grow, and an amazing thing to support and to watch blossom.”